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Jewish family history
Researching immigrant ancestors

HOW TO FIND UK IMMIGRATION RECORDS

They say ‘write about what you know’ so thanks to popular demand, I’ve decided to embark on a series of posts focusing specifically on one of my key areas interest of interest: researching immigrant ancestors to the UK. In this and subsequent posts, I intend to use Jewish immigrants (my specialist subject) as my touchstone but of course, a lot of what I’m going to say applies to other immigrant minorities, national and ethnic groups.

I’ve applied many of the lessons I’ve learned researching Jewish families to researching other immigrants, so I know from personal experience that much of what holds true for one group is equally relevant to others.

So, how to find historic UK immigration records? Well, the truth is, they are relatively few and far between and certainly, we have no real equivalent of Ellis Island or other port manifests and passenger records available in the US. Similarly, historic British naturalisation papers (which will be the subject of another post) don’t seem to place as much emphasis on date and place of entry as US equivalents which usually have designated fields for date, ship and port of arrival.  However there are some key places to look for details of an ancestor’s arrival in Britain, depending on where they came from and when…

PASSENGER RECORDS

The vast majority of intra-European shipping records have not survived so unless your family came to Britain from outside of Europe, you will be lucky to find a record for their arrival. The only significant collection of passenger records relating to immigrants to England from Europe (with particular relevance to Eastern European immigrants) are the Hamburg Passenger Manifests (1850-1934) available via Ancestry.  These come from a collection held at the Hamburg State Archive and are in German but can be searched relatively easily.

If you are looking for ancestors arriving from outside of Europe, you may have more luck using the UK Incoming Passenger Lists (1878-1960) which again can be searched through Ancestry.

And that, unfortunately, is pretty much it!  Unless you are lucky enough to find your ancestors listed in one of these collections, it is unlikely you will be able to find our the exact circumstances of their arrival on British shores in the way you might have hoped/expected. You might like to check out this useful overview of UK passenger records from the National Archives.

ALTERNATIVE UK IMMIGRATION SOURCES

Don’t completely depair, however!  You might not find the answers you are looking for in quite the form you expect, but there are a number of go-to sources which may help supply more or less circumstantial detail.

The Poor Jews Temporary Shelter on Leman Street in Whitechapel was often the first destination from the port for many Jewish immigrants to London, so if your ancestors were Jewish this may be well worth a look.  It provided support services for new immigrants with finding accommodation, work and family members already in England (read more here).  The Shelter’s database spans a fairly limited 18 year period from May 1896 to July 1914 but it can be a gold mine if you are lucky enough to find your relative listed. I first encountered the database when I was looking for my great-grandfather’s arrival in London and it reaped rich rewards in my case, including the exact date and ship on which he arrived from Rotterdam, details of a previously unknown cousin he was travelling with, as well as the address of the sister with whom he intended to stay the night of his arrival.  By researching the name of the ship, I was able to find out quite a lot of circumstantial detail about what his journey involved. Remember to try wildcards and variant spellings and always tick the soundex search function available on the database.

Although relatively few passenger manifests survive in the UK, if you know where your ancestor sailed from in ‘the old country’,  it may be worth checking whether departure records survive there.  You never know, you might get lucky.  Sadly no shortcuts for searching for the records – Google is your friend – and always start by approaching the relevant National Archive or State Archive if you know it.

NATIONALITY AND ALIEN RECORDS

Often the only way to discover details of your ancestors’ immigration to the UK is to find naturalisation papers or records relating to their status as aliens.  These may not tell you exactly how they arrived or with whom, but they often give you an indication of the date and sometimes a surprising amount of narrative detail.

You can search for records of a naturalised ancestor for the period 1801 -1968 on the National Archives Catalogue here.  For each ancestor you may expect to find separate index entries to a naturalisation certificate and a more detailed set of naturalisation case papers.  It is usually the case papers than contain the real juice! Case papers for the  period 1801-1870 can be searched a viewed online for a small fee. Later records have to be ordered via the National Archives Record Copying Service or viewed in person.  You may need to submit a Freedom of Information request for records less than 100 years old. Remember to search using initials rather than full names, different spellings and wildcards if you are have difficulty (names do not always appears as you expect).

Ancestry also has two important ‘Alien’ Collections spanning roughly the period 1810-1869:
Alien Arrivals, 1810-1811, 1826-1869 can be searched here.  Alien Entry Books 1794-1921 may be browsed here (you may need to set aside some time!).

Always also consider regional and specialist sources. For example, the National Archives has a small collection of London alien registration cards (1918 – 1957) on its website.  The Manchester Police Museum also has an invaluable collection of Alien Registers dating from the First World War to 1969 which I found to contain an amazing amount of detail. I have also been surprised by the narrative detail available about Hugenot immigrants through the records of the Huguenot Library.

OTHER SOURCES TO CONSIDER

Bear in mind other sources that may help you piece together a picture about the circumstances of your ancestors’ immigration to the UK:

Census returns – occasionally census records will explicitly someone had been living in the UK (usually in the birthplace column and whether or not they were an alien (‘resident’) or naturalised (‘British subject’). Although these details can’t always be relied on 100%, they may help direct next steps.

Military service records – if your ancestor served in the British armed forces, it may be possible to glean an amount of detail about their arrival in the UK from service papers. Please see here.

Criminal records – if you know your immigrant ancestor fell foul of the law, don’t forget that court papers and other criminal records may contain an amount of background detail about the circumstances of their arrival.  The British legal system (historically?) loved to be able to attribute fault for criminal behaviour to ‘foreign elements’ and sometimes discussed their background in forensic detail.  Use the Old Bailey Online and the National Archives guide to criminals and convicts as a starting point.

Newspaper records – whether your immigrant ancestor was a criminal or noteworthy for some other reason, never neglect newspapers as possible sources of information.  At a time when newspapers were the most important vehicle of news, it is often surprising how much anecdotal detail reports contain. Start with the British Newspaper Archive and The Times Digital Archive, available via subscription or your local library.

If you would like help searching for your immigrant ancestors, please don’t hesitate get in touch.  Please feel free to leave questions and comments below.

Happy Hunting!

GENEALOGICAL SERENDIPITY, BRICK WALLS & JOINING UP THE DOTS IN THE UNIVERSE

Genealogical serendipity (when lightning strikes)

Poor neglected blog. I’m prompted to get back to it, thanks to a recent run of what us family history dorks sometimes call ‘genealogical serendipity’. This will perhaps ring most bells with more experienced family historians but it has relevance for beginners too.

Genealogical serendipity tends to strike when a brick wall you’ve previously encountered in your research suddenly crumbles before your eyes with the discovery of a new record, a story or even a photo. Genealogist Christine Sievers says “If you have been doing genealogy for any length of time you will have experienced that wonderful chance happening that has opened up a whole new world.”  Some people attribute this to some sort of guidance from above. Some to some other sort of extra-corporeal or supernatural guiding spirit. Susan Soyinka speaks very powerfully about it in her extraordinary family memoir A Silence that Speaks.

Me – I’m perhaps a bit more pragmatic, a bit less mystical about it. I put it down to sheer personal brilliance, or rather more accurately, tenacity!

It is perhaps a truism that, like everything else in life, there seems to be a direct correlation between the work put in and the happenstance of genealogical serendipity. For me, it happens when I’m completely engaged and immersed in a subject.  When, by dint of thinking through all scenarios, probabilities and likely places to search, the evidence I’m looking for seems to miraculously appear before my eyes.  To cannibalise that seminal Kevin Costner line, “If you build it, they will come…”.

I hope this serves as a message of hope for those just setting out on their family’s story, but also for those who have been grappling with certain brick walls for more years than they care it remember!

It’s also about experience, I suppose.  Sometimes it’s not possible to be as entirely logical or rational in our research as we would hope to be.  Sometimes a cognitive leap is required to get at the answers we are looking for. This is a conundrum I encounter all the time as a specialist in Jewish family history where names families regularly migrate from one place to another, and names are changed again and again – often with no apparent rhyme or reason.  The usual rules simply don’t apply (see our post about chucking out the rule book in Jewish family history here).

It has been thanks to certain leaps of faith – based on hunch, but limited evidence – that some of my most steadfast brick walls have come tumbling down. And being able to make such jumps often requires a level of experience and immersion in the subject matter that comes with time. So, there’s cause for optimism for you more experienced researchers – it’s all been worth it, the answer is out there – yours for the taking…!)

I sometimes describe my job as ‘joining up the dots in the universe’.  It often feels like that.  I realised recently that I have been working for two completely independent clients whose families lived next door to each other in the East End 100 years earlier. On more than one other occasion, two independent clients were actually related via an ancestor in the old country. Perhaps it is no surprise, given that my chosen subject is a relatively small diaspora, geographically limited not just in their countries of origin but often in the places they came to call home.

Nonetheless, despite all my scepticism, it sent shivers up my spine when I discovered that the ancestors of a new client I began working with (who lives near me in a village of 2,000 people in the Sussex countryside) were neighbours of my own great-great-grandparents in a shtetl outside Lodz in the 1880s.

Isn’t that spooky?

If you would like help breaking down brick walls in your own research, please drop us a line.

Read some of our latest client testimonials here.

Find the right researcher for your family history journey

HOW TO HIRE A GENEALOGIST

Find the right researcher for your family history journeyFinding the right researcher to investigate your family tree is not necessarily an easy task.  Professional genealogists are few and far between, and it can be difficult to know whether someone has the expertise, interests and communication skills you need.  This decision can be a significant one: researching your family history may be amongst the most meaningful personal journeys you ever embark on, so make sure that your guide is someone you trust, respect and perhaps most importantly, like!  The right genealogist will be able to bring your ancestors and the past back to life…

Here are some tips to help you identify the best family historian to guide you on your journey.
Professional credentials for a family historian

While there are no guarantees that a professional genealogist will be able to locate more information about your family history than you or a friendly amateur, if you are paying for research you want to make sure that a researcher is qualified to deliver the results you’re looking for.  AGRA in the UK and the APG in the US are the only genealogy associations that vet members and offer a formal regulatory framework, if anything goes wrong.  Their websites are likely to be the best places to start your search.  Use them to draw up a short list of genealogists that seem to suit your requirements, based on their specialism(s), location or maybe the languages they speak.

Genealogical specialisms

A good genealogist combines a broad knowlege of the framework of available records with rigorous research skills.  Crucially, he or she will be able to communicate the results of research to you clearly and accurately both on paper and verbally, and will be tenacious in the quest!

In theory, any good genealogist should be able to find answers to the questions you have about your family history.  In practice, no one knows everything!  It is likely to be most cost-effective for you to find someone who is familiar with the records which will yield the information you’re looking for, and can give you the benefit of other contacts in the field. Variables such as nationality, region, religion, ethnicity, occupation and gender will all dictate which sources a researcher will consult.  Research Roots specialises in Jewish family history, for example, which is quite a distinct discipline from other types of genealogy (more about this here and here).

With new record collections being digitised all the time, it is important that your researcher is familiar with the terrain of your family history in order to save you time and money.

Does a genealogist’s location matter?

Well, yes and no.  Since so many original records are now available online through sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch, your researcher’s location is much less significant than it once was. However, many more obscure local records, which may help you get real colour and anecdotal detail have still not been digitised, so it may be handy if your researcher is near relevant archives.  You may also wish to consider whether it would be helpful to meet them in person, on a one-off or regular basis. Since we are based in Brighton, East Sussex, we do a lot of Sussex family history and are also within easy reach of the major London archives.

Professional genealogist costs & fee structure

Professional genealogists’ fees vary, sometimes quite considerably.  This may or may not be related to their level of experience, expertise and how in demand they are!  Shop around.  Get a sense of the going rate, and most importantly, before you enter into any agreement with a genealogist understand what is and isn’t included in the rate.  A good genealogist should have some clearly laid out terms of business (like these).

Some researchers will offer research packages for certain types of research but most prefer to work on the basis of an hourly fee, as it can be quite difficult to predict in advance how long certain pieces of research will take.  It is normal for a genealogist to ask for payment in advance (or some sort of deposit), but don’t be afraid to request in advance they account for how their time is spent in the form of a diary or log.  It’s good for everyone concerned to keep the lines of communication open!

Professional genealogists on the web

Most professional genealogists will have some sort of web presence.  Before making initial calls, you may find it useful to do a little online research yourself using the researcher’s website, LinkedIn and any press.  Testimonials and Google reviews can be a useful guide.  Facebook, Twitter and other social media can be a good way of gauging what a researcher is about and whether you like their vibe!

Chat with a pro

Once you’ve narrowed down a shortlist, make some calls.  As with most things in life, there is no substitute for having a conversation either face to face, or by phone or Skype.  Most genealogists will offer a free initial consultation of between 30-60 minutes to discuss your research needs, realistic goals, timings and costs.  If you haven’t had access to previous client testimonials, request them or ask if you can speak to previous clients.  Any researcher worth their salt should be able to give you this opportunity.

It is worth repeating, it really helps if you like the researcher you hire.  You are likely to be in regular contact with them, probably for weeks if not months, sometimes years – assuming you have the time, energy and budget!  Depending on the project, you may be sharing some quite personal information with them.  You need to feel confident that they are on the same page as you, understand (and can deliver) what you are after, and share your enthusiasm for the search.

Happy hunting!
Contact us today for your free initial consultation with Research Roots & read our latest client testimonials here.
Research your family history using cemetery records

HOW TO RESEARCH ANCESTORS’ GRAVES

Research your family history using cemetery recordsI recently spent a sunny afternoon with a local history group transcribing graves in a village churchyard. It reminded what an amazing and sometimes unexpected resource gravestones can be for tracing your family history.

Cemeteries are living lessons in history, sometimes telling us as much about the people who buried the dead as the person who died. While they can’t always be relied upon absolutely, and shouldn’t be treated as a primary source, gravestones can be an excellent source of dates, birthplaces, maiden names, spouses’ names and parents’ names. They can also provide evidence of military service, membership of a fraternal organization and religious affiliations.

Prior to the introduction of civil registration – 1837 in England and Wales – church burial records are the chief source of information about deaths in a community.

Why visit?

Even if you know a great deal about the deceased including their names, date and place of birth and death, and key relationships, a grave visit can often yield new information. Nearby gravestones may lead you to other family members, children that have died in infancy (for who no other record may exist), even living relatives who have left remembrances at the graveside.

Certain communities have particular (useful) traditions such as the Jewish custom of including the Hebrew name of the deceased’s father on the gravestone.

It can also be a potent experience to stand beside the last physical evidence of your ancestors’ lives.

How to locate a grave

A death certificate should tell you when and where the deceased was buried. If it doesn’t, ask around. Your relatives may have knowledge you don’t. Local history groups often have indexes of local interments and may be able to provide information about other family members too. Their records can sometimes be found amongst the growing burial records available online through sites like Ancestry, Find a Grave and Deceased Online (see burial resources below).

Some larger municipal cemeteries, many in the US, have their own websites on which you can search graves. It is often possible to obtain photos of a gravestone, sometimes for a small fee.

In some cases, finding a grave may depend on a process of elimination and a bit of legwork, based about what you know about the deceased’s life and death. I recently spent a couple of hours phoning round Portsmouth cemeteries to find a particular grave. You can use Google maps to search for ‘cemeteries near X’. Most cemeteries employ a caretaker or sexton who will be able to tell you whether they have the grave you are looking for, or suggest where else you might try. Caretakers can be extremely knowledgeable about local records so do explain fully the nature of your enquiry. It is usually possible to find phone numbers, and sometimes email addresses online.

Preparation

It is worth doing your research in advance online, by phone and email; looking for a grave even in a small cemetery can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is helpful to know the terrain before you visit – if it being cared for/ overgrown, for example (you might need to use a map to locate an old or obscure graveyard). If there is no marker for a grave, it’s good to know this beforehand.

Check opening times and the hours of the cemetery caretaker in advance, and dress appropriately.

Take a camera and/or a large piece of paper with crayons. Sometimes material deterioration, moss and foliage can make gravestones difficult to read. A rubbing may help to decipher an epitaph and record symbols inscribed on a grave. A symbol may indicate membership of an organisation which may lead to other records about your relative. Check the backs of gravestones too. Be respectful and careful not to cause any damage by using abrasive cleaning materials.

If you are making a transcription, make sure you write down names, dates and inscriptions exactly as they appear on the stone; it will be useful to have an accurate record as you move forward (or backward) with your research. Also record the physical relationship between graves if more than one relative is buried in same plot or vicinity. You may wish to draw a simple map, if the cemetery cannot provide one. You may wish to submit the findings to an online resource like Find A Grave.

If a cemetery is in poor condition or you don’t know the location of your ancestor’s grave, try to work your way around it as carefully and logically as possible, recording the ground you have covered (for your next visit). A video may be a useful way of recording what you have done.

Make use of caretakers’ records which may include burial registers, plot maps and plot records. The caretaker may be able to give you circumstantial details such as the exact date of interment, next of kin at the time of death, as well as current contact names. They may also be able to provide details of other family members’ graves.

Useful burial resources

Ancestry.com: Death, Burial, Cemeteries and Obituaries
Find A Grave.com: a free resource including more than 85 million burial records
Deceased Online: a new subscription-based index with a growing number of UK burial and cremation records
County and municipal records: some local councils publish burial records online
Jewish Online World Burial Registry (JOWBR)

Happy hunting!
Please get in touch if you would like help finding an ancestors’ grave either in the UK, or abroad.

Jewish genealogy specialists

HOW TO BEGIN RESEARCHING YOUR JEWISH ANCESTRY

Jewish genealogy specialistsSeveral years ago when I began researching my own Jewish ancestry, an elderly relative sent me a scuffed piece of paper with a list of unfamiliar names.  These, I was told, were my great-grandfather’s siblings – the Lewkowicz family – from Lodz, Poland.  Then, I knew little more than my great-grandfather’s name and that he had died aged 52 in Kensington Infirmary, of tuberculosis aggravated by his tailoring work.

Fast forward to the present day, and I not only know what became of each one of those siblings, their children, and grandchildren – but, I am in touch with more than thirty 2nd and 3rd cousins in the US.  I know exactly where my great-grandfather grew up, what his street and his synagogue looked like, the names of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as far back as 1740, how and when he came to London, the family he left behind…

The point of this story?  With a little persistence, everything is possible.  Do not assume that your Jewish ancestry cannot be uncovered! I have since researched a number of Ashkenazi and Sephardi families, from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East and have learned a few clear lessons along the way.

Chuck out the rule book

The usual principles of genealogical research do not apply.  Clearly, you cannot rely on your Jewish ancestors staying in the same place, as most English families traditionally did, or using the same names.  Even in “the old country” our ancestors typically went by a variety of names and epithets in several languages, and spelled surnames in multiple ways.  These challenges are compounded by translation and adoption of new names in new countries.  It is wise to keep an open mind when searching records and not to discount sources too quickly if certain details appear inaccurate.

Assume nothing

It is surprising how many Jewish records survive in Eastern Europe and beyond, despite best efforts to obliterate them.  Do not assume there is no information to be had.  It may be possible to find birth, marriage and death records; books of Jewish residents; business directories; cemetery records and much more.

Ask the questions

You won’t get answers if you don’t ask the questions!  Use the internet to research which archives might be helpful to you. Write or email, explain what you want to find out, ideally in bite-size chunks, and ask what records are available.  Though archivists are employed to retrieve records, not to do the work for you, they often provide an amount of informal research.  It pays to do your homework first.  Be prepared to chase! If you do not know where your ancestors came from, use old census returns and vital records to locate them.

Muster your resources

Use every tool at your disposal – a larger toolbox is required to research a Jewish family tree, though it need not be specialist.  Start by contacting relatives and ask them what they know.  As well as genealogical resources online (many of which are free, see below), use Google translate to help communicate with overseas archives, XE.com to calculate currency conversion fees. Utilise Facebook, the Israeli telephone directory, US White Pages…

Expect nothing… and everything

Obviously there is no guarantee you will find what you are looking for.  However, the particular challenges of researching Jewish ancestry make the fruits all the sweeter.  And, often, the stories uncovered about our ancestors’ rich past are of a peculiarly fascinating scope.

Where to start?

Start with the present and work your way back logically, making notes of significant names, places and dates.  You may wish to make use of the following resources:

JewishGen – the most comprehensive repository of Jewish genealogical information.
Ancestry – register a free subscription to build a tree, and explore its vast records, including the Jewish Online World Burial Registry, Jewish family history collections, passenger and immigration records.
Yad Vashem – trace relatives in wartime Europe using the Shoah Names Database, which draws on personal testimonies and WW2-era records.
Avotaynu – investigate the extensive resources of this leading Jewish genealogical publisher, including the Consolidated Jewish Surname Index, a gateway to 700,000 Jewish surnames.

Happy hunting!

A version of this piece appears in the Rosh Hashanah 2012 issue of Amuse, the biannual magazine of Edgeware Synagogue and Sussex Jewish News
East End Family History

RESEARCHING LONDON ANCESTORS

In the opening of The Go-Between (1953), the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote famously: “The past is a foreign country…”.  The phrase has been overused to the point of proverb, but it returned to mind recently when working on the history of an East End London family in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

This family resided for more than 150 years near the Thames in Stepney, Ratcliff and Shadwell, working on the dockside as labourers and coopers and selling fruit and vegetables in the local markets.  Occasionally someone branched out into a new profession such as ‘cabinet-making’ or ventured north to the environs of Bethnal Green, but seldom for long.

Yet, despite the family’s deep roots and very evident sense of rootedness in Stepney, finding them in the records and understanding the context of their lives often proved a significant challenge.  And, it’s a challenge that is common to other parts of the capital.

Pre-war streets

One of the principal tests in researching this part of London is that today it looks nothing like it did pre-WW2.  Many of the streets in which Victorian Londoners lived and worked simply no longer exist.  Give or take the odd surviving landmark such as St. Dunstan’s Church (built in the 15th century), the 20th century decline of Thames trade, the Blitz and slum clearance initiatives of the 1960s, have cumulatively rendered Stepney and its neighbouring districts unrecognisable.  The Victorians who navigated its highways and byways, its wharves and markets in the nineteenth century occupied a terrain that is literally and figuratively “a foreign country.”

Ways of mapping

As the excellent BBC2 series The Secret History of our Streets recently highlighted, there are a few tools available to help us overcome this, to ‘map’ and understand the geographical context of London lives.  The ‘Poverty Maps‘, produced by Victorian social reformer Charles Booth between 1886 and 1903, are a fascinating and incredibly valuable source of information.  They describe the socio-economic condition of each one of London’s streets according to a detailed colour key.  By comparing present day maps to other contemporaneous maps, such as Reynold’s Map of East London (1882), we can also locate streets that have over time completely disappeared.

Understanding the terminology

The unfamiliarity of Victorian London is not helped by the fact that terms used in the records can be very confusing.  The same names may be used in different contexts to indicate a parish registration district or borough, and the boundaries of these units themselves also changed over time as London expanded.  Stepney and Bethnal Green, for example, were part of Middlesex before they were incorporated into the county of London in 1889.

Finding relatives

Of course the challenges of researching East London ancestors are not just geographical.   Some are associated with the general problems of carrying out research in a densely populated metropolis.  Simply, there are many more variables to contend with in a city than in a rural community.  The Victorian East End is especially challenging given that during the nineteenth century it contained some of the poorest and most overcrowded neighbourhoods in the capital.  Life expectancy was lower than in other parts of the city and infant mortality more common.  To boot, the population was relatively transient and the area was a traditional magnet for immigrants arriving in the capital – from Huguenots in the eighteenth century to Eastern European Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sources

Some of the most atmospheric sources of information about Victorian East London are early photographs.  It can be useful to consult these to get a feel for the world beyond the records. The missionary John Galt took an amazing collection of photographs of Poverty in East London, some of which you can see here.  The Museum of London, the British Library and the Guidhall also have some fascinating online collections.

Here are some other useful sources of information for researching London ancestors:
Do get in touch if you would like some help researching your own London ancestors.

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